On several occasions, Jesus seemed to prophesy His speedy return. When He sent His disciples out on their first evangelistic outing, He promised them:
- “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:23)
Regarding this perplexing prophecy, Albert Schweitzer claimed that Jesus had wrongly believed that He would return and set up His everlasting kingdom prior to the return of His disciples:
- He tells them in plain words…that He does not expect to see them back in the present age.
However, was this really what Jesus had communicated? It seems highly unlikely. The preceding verses reveal that His return would be preceded by many global events:
- "Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles…Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:17-22)
Instead, it seems that Jesus was preparing His disciples for both a long wait and possibly their martyrdom. What them did Jesus intend to convey when He stated that “you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23)?
I think that Jesus, so thoroughly imbued as He was with the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, spoke in a way that mimicked them. Often, these prophecies would begin with the immediate in view but would then jump years into the future in the same breath. Here’s a familiar example – the prophecy to Abraham:
- "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:1-3)
Although this prophecy had some immediate applications, the blessing to “all the peoples of the earth” would come much later.
Similarly, it seems that Jesus’ prophecy to His disciple would also be realized by later generations.
He delivered a similar prophecy to the high priest:
- But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Matthew 26:63-64)
This shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that the high priest himself would see this take place. However, in harmony with the character of Hebrew prophecy, He was probably suggesting that the Jewish people would observe His return.
It is interesting to note that the liberal skeptics claim that the Gospels were written by the early church (70-100 AD) to justify their evolved understanding of Jesus as God. In other words, instead of the Gospels containing the very words of Jesus, spoken 27-30 AD, they largely represent the “pious” invention of the early church.
For an extreme example, New Testament critic Bart Ehrman claims:
- The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our Gospels, only in John. (Jesus Interrupted, 249)
- There is not one word in this Gospel about Jesus actually being God. (247)
However, if the Gospels were a later Christian invention, it would be impossible to explain why the early church would have invented prophecies that seemed to indicate that Jesus had been mistaken! By 70-100 AD, Jesus hadn’t yet returned, and an early return was no longer possible. Why then invent or include prophecies that would make Jesus appear wrong! These clearly are not prophecies that the early church would invent 70-100 AD.
Perhaps the most fought-over prophecy about Jesus’ return comes from Matthew 24:34, after Jesus had described the signs preceding His return:
- “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matthew 24:34; also Mark 13:30-31 and Luke 21:32-33)
“This generation” seems to take away any ambiguity about His return. Specifically, it would be during “this generation!” However, there is some controversy what “this generation” really refers to. As we found in Matthew 10, here too we find that Jesus clearly doesn’t believe that the end is near:
- You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death [Evidently, the Apostles will not be living at the time of His return!], and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold…And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:6-14)
Many things must first take place – martyrdom, apostasy, and worldwide evangelism - prior to Jesus’ return. Therefore, “this generation” shouldn’t be interpreted literally.
It is therefore more likely that “this generation” should be understood as “this Jewish people.” In other words, Jesus seems to be saying that the Jewish people will still exist when He returns.
However, while the Greek word for “generation” (“genea”) can be understood in certain verses in this sense (Luke 11:50-51; Mat. 12:39), only in the Hebrew Scriptures can we find the corresponding term (“dor”), usually rendered at “generation,” used unequivocally in this manner:
- There they are, overwhelmed with dread, for God is present in the company [“dor”] of the righteous. (Psalm 14:5)
- By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants [“dor”]? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. (Isaiah 53:8)
In both of these cases, “dor” cannot be understood as “generation” – a typical human lifespan. In Isaiah, “dor” can only be understood as the many generations, “descendents,” or people who didn’t come forth from the Messiah, because He died for the sins of the people.
Therefore, was Jesus mistaken about the time of His return? Well, if we choose to understand His words as indicating an early return, then it does seem that He was mistaken. However, if we don’t dismiss entire context of His remarks, then it is not possible to construe His words as prophesying an early return.